Kids can read, yes they can! But where is their attention span?

As part of my library curriculum, March is “Spotlight on an Author” month.  In the past I have read aloud many of the works of Eric Carle,  Arnold Lobel and Marc Brown. This year, I decided to focus on Dr. Seuss, the master of rhyme, whimsical illustrations and imaginary creatures.

I read 12 Dr. Seuss books to my students over the course of a month, including; The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, Green Eggs and Ham, One fish two fish red fish blue fish, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and The Foot Book.

Some genuine reactions from my students…url-4

“How silly! I like it!”

“This book is sooo long!”

“The Cat in the Hat is a bad cat.”

“I would tell my mom the truth.”

“That’s not a real ABC book. It’s got made up words.”

“It’s a tongue twister!”

“That’s too many words!”

“I will not eat them anywhere!”

In the age of Twitter, when anything important has to be said in 140 characters or less (check out Twitter’s fiction challenge #140novel), a Dr. Seuss book might seem wordy. But are my kindergarten students really that affected by Twitter and hashtags? Possibly. Apps at their fingertips provide instant gratification. Slice the fruit, get points! Throw the bird, the blocks fall down. Although my students enjoyed Dr. Seuss, I often had to stop in the middle for a seventh inning stretch to quell the wiggles.

Popular books from the last few years seem to have word conservation, a clear paring down of words to tell a story with minimalist precision.  Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, with one tidy sentence per page; a wordless 2014 Caldecott Honor Book called Journey; and If You Want to See a Whale, a quiet tale that reads almost like a list, are only three among many examples of this popular trend.

But Dr. Seuss? Never has my tongue been twisted in so many knots!

url-3

By far, the most tricky (and most fun) of everything I read was Fox in Socks. It comes with a disclaimer on the cover that reads, “This is a book you READ ALOUD to find out just how smart your tongue is. The first itme you read it, don’t go fast! This Fox is a tricky fox. He’ll try to get your tongue in trouble.”

Try this one!

What do you know about tweetle beetles?

Well…

When tweetle beetles fight,

it’s called

a tweetle beetle battle.

And when they battle in a puddle,

it’s a tweetle

beetle puddle battle.

AND when tweetle beetles

battle with a paddle in a puddle,

they call it a tweetle

beetle puddle paddle battle.

While my students were genuinely amused by the language, I watched their attention wander. And I want to be clear about this: I read with great enthusiasm. I do all the voices, and frequently act out the parts as well. Which got me thinking, are books written for a child in the 50s and 60s still relevant for a child in 2014? What has changed from then to now?  In our exuberance for getting to the point, have we forgotten how to enjoy a wordy romp? Why read The Lorax, which is quite difficult, when you can watch the movie? The messages in the stories are timeless, but the method of attaining the message requires energy on the part of the reader. This energy, I feel, is essential to inspiring lifelong vigorous readers. If only half the energy is needed to extract meaning, will the message only be received in part as well?

read with my eyes shut

I was pleased to know that my students were already familiar with Green Eggs and Ham. In fact, they recited the book along with me the whole time.  While reading The Cat in the Hat, I remembered my mother refusing to put it in our collection at home, because the Cat was such a bad influence. He still is. Creating sound effects in Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? was a hoot, pun intended. The Lorax is classic and generates great conversations about protecting the environment, and Dr. Seuss’s ABC is delightfully unexpected.

Overall, my students enjoyed Dr. Seuss, and although I am still untying my tongue, I did too.

cat in the hat

What’s your experience reading aloud to groups of kids? As a writer, do you worry about kids’ attention span? How do you hold their attention in an age of instant gratification? Is word conservation a trend of necessity or invention?

10 comments

  1. Random, but I think it’s time for a re-work somehow of Dr. Seuss’s ABC book. “Baby, barber, bumblebee – B, B, B!” is fine, but when you get to K? Ick.

    My kids always hear “That’s the letter K!”

    My 3 year old has trouble with any Seuss book longer than that. I think it really depends on activity level and interest. Fox in Socks, for example, doesn’t really have a storyline, so that’s impossible for a preschooler’s attention span. Maybe if the fox would fart, though….

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  2. Alison one of the first books I remember being read to me was Green Eggs and Ham and I read it to my children who loved it too. I do believe things may be a little too simplified these days and children need to practice listening, of course their minds wander, that much has not changed…all children’s attentions spans flip and flop and return….. hopefully we will never grow tired of Dr Sues thanks for a great post.

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  3. Alison, I think you’ve touched on an issue that affects all ages. Too much screen time, too many things are quick and easy. I want to see all children with less computer screen time and less television, and I want their parents off their phones constantly so they can model that behavior. How about families make time daily for a shared reading time? That will all help in developing the habit of being able to sit longer and listen to stories. Now if only we could enforce that!

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  4. Yes, where is their attention span. I agree with Kristi, that some children just don’t have the stamina to sit still for long readings simply because they haven’t been read to since infancy. But, that’s no excuse to pare down great literature. Maybe we should be focusing on increasing attention spans. Just thinking too, don’t try any of the good doctor’s longer books with your kiddos yet. They are just not ready for Bartholomew or the Oobleck, at least not all in one sitting! 🙂

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    1. Juliana and Kirsti, you both have a valid point about reading starting at home. And there are some longer books that they will sit through with bated breath. I read Rainbow Crow, A Lenape Tale, the other day and they were mesmerized. Although they were wiggly while I was reading Dr. Seuss, they kept asking for more.

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  5. In my experience as a mom of five, kids will sit and listen to a good story forever if that’s what they’ve done their entire lives. I wonder if the problem is less about the length of the story, and more about the exposure that children have to stories and sitting and listening. Very young children will listen to a good story(even if it’s long) when it’s read well. Sometimes it just takes a little practice 🙂 And with all the technology and games, maybe that’s what’s not happening!

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  6. Young kids are wiggly, but this may not mean that they are not paying attention. Sometimes when reading my children’s stories to a group of youngsters, I stop and engage them with a comment or a question or point to the illustration. As a former teacher, I know that I will not engage all the students all of the time. Beryl

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  7. I’ve started trying to break into the PB market, and constantly hear that I need to try to keep manuscripts close to 500 words – that children’s attention spans are short and that parents want a quick book to read at bedtime. But in my own experience: my 8, 6,and 4 year old will happily sit through One Fish, Two Fish – especially if I go fast enough to occasionally trip over my tongue. Nothing’s funnier than a stumped grown-up!

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  8. Alison, this is an issue I think about a lot, especially when writing my own books. I think ‘word conversation’ books have always been around, and there have been many popular ones that still work today. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Snowy Day, & Where the Wild Things Are all have pretty small word counts but were written for children of the 50’s and 60’s.

    ‘Picture Storybooks,’ those in the 1000-2000+ word count range, are not really printed much any more. If they are, they’re printed as beginning chapter books or early readers like Mercy Watson or Scholastic’s Branches line. But perhaps due to the stigma that older children should be reading ‘chapter books’ not ‘picture books,’ these ‘Picture Storybooks’ just aren’t printed much. Whether this is a good thing is up for debate.

    But to answer your question about attention span: yes, as a writer I do worry about kids’ attention spans – and a child’s attention span is greatly affected by the enthusiasm of the reader (parent/teacher/librarian) – something at which you are clearly gifted. Therefore, I strive to write picture books that will entertain the adult reader just as much as the child (think Pixar films), giving the adult many reasons to read with the energy, fervor, and emotion that will keep the child engaged for the duration of the book.

    And while there is a limit to the length that the adult and child can handle (and Dr. Seuss’s books may cross that limit in today’s world), I personally believe that word counts can be pushed closer to 1000 words if the books are done right.

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    1. Josh, thanks for your very thorough reply. I completely agree that longer books are being printed as early chapter books. Even though I always encourage my kindergarteners to choose a book they can read on their own, they would rather pick up a chapter book (like magic tree house) because it makes them look “cool”. When and why a stigma for reading picture books emerged, I do not know.

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